Light Touch Harms The Pleasure
10 September 1994
Amadeus by Peter Shaffer; directed by Jean-Pierre Mignon; design and costumes by Richard Jeziorny; cast includes Barry Otto, Rhys Muldoon and Nadine Garner, Athenaeum.
IT IS 13 years since Peter Shaffer's Amadeus was first seen in Melbourne in a production by the MTC. Since then, we have had the film. The events of the play are probably familiar as a result; but the writing itself remains a pleasure.
As most theatregoers will know, Amadeus is a duel to the death between two musical rivals of the Hapsburg court: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who gives the work its title, and Antonio Salieri, who is its moving force.
It is a study in envy and destruction. Salieri, a prolific composer in his own right, has ambitions of “blazing like a comet'' across the firmament of Europe. Then Mozart arrives at court, and Salieri realises to his consternation that he has a young genius as a rival.
If his own music is not to be eclipsed, Mozart will have to be brought down.
So Salieri sets about a campaign of obstruction and destruction. So fierce is his envy, and so acute his personal sense of failure in the face of Mozart's brilliance, that he feeds arsenic to him. This is the controversial element in the play. Whether it happened in real life is beside the point.
For if Salieri didn't actually poison Mozart, he poisoned his career by blocking his advancement at court and keeping him in a state of penury. But equally, Mozart poisoned Salieri's life in turn, exposing his artistic mediocrity and ensuring that in years to come it would be Mozart whose music would be played endlessly while Salieri's would fade into relative obscurity.
The two protagonists are sharply differentiated. Salieri is urbane and courtly but also treacherous while Mozart, far from being an angelic creature who pours out heavenly music, is a crude, impish, guileless creature who plays infantile games with his wife Constanze and shocks the court with his obscenities and his scatological references.
In Jean-Pierre Mignon's production, the two men are played by Rhys Muldoon as Mozart and Barry Otto as Salieri. When we first see the latter, it is 32 years after Mozart's death, and the kapellmeister is a dying old man in a wheelchair. His voice is cracked; his mouth is gummy. He picks away at a plate of sweetmeats and pastries which, he confides, have been his lifelong addiction.
Suddenly he tosses off his blanket and dressing gown to reveal the younger man beneath. In Otto's hands, he emerges clearly. The performance is beautifully spoken but mannered, too close to the surface and too transparent. What it lacks is a true and compelling sense of malevolence.
Muldoon's Mozart by comparison is boyish in manners and enthusiasm. He is required to be coarse and playful, and that is how Muldoon plays him, especially in the scenes with the down-to-earth Constanze (Nadine Garner).
Mignon's production does the play rough justice, skating over the events of the play lightly but for the most part uninvolvingly. It is agreeable enough, but with inappropriate cartoon elements – an Emperor (Bill Ten Ecyk), for example, who is a mere figure of fun, and the two venticelli or gossip-mongers (Ernie Gray and Reg Evans) who are played as panto creatures with no hint of the sinister.
The production is visually pleasant if not lavish, save for the cottonwool wigs that do nothing for their wearers. Where it is at its best is in scenes where the music feeds the drama – where, for example, Mozart and Constanze play a childish game which turns into Papageno's song from The Magic Flute, and in the early scene where Mozart goes to the keyboard, plays from memory a little welcome piece written in his honor by Salieri, and then turns it on the spot into an aria from the still-to-be-written Marriage of Figaro.
It is neat dramatic moments like these that make the play so pleasurable. Would that the production fully matched it.